The Pluralism Diaries

by Rav Goni

Entry-6/06/06-10 Sivan 5766

Pluralism and Fear

The Sages noticed that when the Torah describes the journey of the Israelites toward Mount Sinai it employs verbs in the plural form – “va-yis`u-and they traveled” or “va-yahanu-and they encamped.” But when the Torah describes the final encampment of the Israelites at Mount Sinai, in preparation for receiving the Torah, it employs the singular form – “va-yihan sham Yisra’el neged ha-har-and Israel encamped [-sing.] across from the mountain.” (Ex. 19:2) They remarked: “Every place that the Torah says “they traveled” or “they encamped” in the plural form it means that they traveled amidst controversy and they encamped amidst controversy. But here they set their hearts together as one. Therefore it says ‘va-yihan.'”(Mekhilta, Ba-Hodesh 1)

A similar experience was enjoyed at the Alma all-night Tikkun Leil Shavuot that took place simultaneously at the Manhattan JCC and the 92nd Street Y, from 10 PM last Thursday night to 5 AM Friday morning, on the first night of the Shavuot holiday. Hundreds of people of all ages, backgrounds and outlooks gathered for a rich array of cultural and social events as well as for serious Torah study. There were activities to suit every taste and ideology. It was possible to listen to live music or go swimming, or, to avoid doing these things if one wasn’t in the mood or if one was religiously opposed to such doing activities on a religious holiday. So everyone could go their separate ways and make their own choices, all under one (or two) roofs. But more impressively, the Torah study sessions succeeded in attracting a varied group of visitors who, instead of going their separate ways, were comfortable being with each other. Thus, in one class that I observed, for example, self-identified Orthodox adults exchanged perspectives with younger secular Israelis, and some participants were avidly listening and taking notes.

This means that each participant in such a session was, consciously or unconsciously, deciding to engage with other people, people with unfamiliar or unacceptable views or lifestyle choices. Some may have done this with a degree of discomfort, fear or hesitation. But those who were there had clearly moved beyond those feelings. After the Tikkun ended everyone went their separate ways. But for that Shavuot evening we re-enacted the encampment at Sinai, as one.

Meanwhile, across the sea, in the Holy Land, a different scenario played out recently. The Jerusalem Post (“Riskin Skips Conservative Agunot Parley,” by Matthew Wagner, May 29, 2006) reports that an Orthodox rabbi withdrew at the last moment from a conference organized by the Masorti (Conservative) Movement after first accepting an invitation to participate. The conference was called to discuss various approaches to solving a problem of marriage inequities in Jewish law in which women are prevented from extricating themselves from a failed marriage (- the agunah problem). The Masorti movement had just issued a book that sought to catalogue the different approaches that have been advocated in traditional circles to solve this problem. The conference was convened at the prestigious Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem, in an effort to find a location that would not be identified as “Masorti,” and thus be unacceptable to the Orthodox. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Chief Rabbi of Efrat, himself an advocate of a controversial solution to the agunah problem, had originally accepted an invitation to present his views.

Why did he withdraw? Rabbi Riskin explained: “Being singled out as the only Orthodox rabbi to speak at the conference would risk having my suggested solutions to the agunot problem disqualified by the rabbinic establishment.”

Rabbi Riskin was the only scheduled Orthodox participant not because he was “singled out” as the only Orthodox rabbi invited. Rather, he was the only Orthodox rabbi who would accept the invitation. In other words, the rabbi was not personally opposed to sharing his thoughts with a religiously concerned audience that was not necessarily Orthodox. What, then, was the reason for his withdrawal? In fact, or in effect, he was pressured by forces in the Orthodox community who threatened him. They told him that his views – no matter what their merits – would not be given a hearing if he dared to appear before such an audience.

Rabbi Riskin made the following calculation: His own effectiveness in the Orthodox community is dependent on the Orthodox community’s willingness to discuss his proposal regarding a religious problem affecting the suffering of innocent human beings. Rabbi Riskin feels that he has a persuasive and valid way to lessen and prevent such suffering. Such a discussion would be the highest fulfillment of the Torah. But doing away with this suffering – by engaging in such a fulfillment of the Torah – is less important to the Orthodox community than maintaining its success in preventing any participation in religious discussion with non-Orthodox rabbis! So, for the sake of retaining his hope that the Orthodox rabbinic establishment might still listen to his proposal, Rabbi Riskin had no choice but to avoid conversing with the non-Orthodox.

Thus, a powerful segment of traditional Jewry is willing to betray the Torah out of fear of pluralistic engagement. Such a fear must be awesome, indeed.

Entry – 5/22/06-24 Iyyar 5766

The NY Times ran a report a couple of days ago discussing the difficulties the liberal religious leadership in the US is having in organizing themselves as an effective political force (
“Religious Left Struggles to Find Unifying Message,” by Neela Banerjee, May 19, 2006
) Activists and thinkers gathered at the Spiritual Activism Conference in an attempt to create a focused agenda. But the attempt failed. The Times reporter writes:

Turnout at the Spiritual Activism Conference is high, but if the gathering is any indication, the biggest barrier for liberals may be their regard for pluralism: for letting people say what they want, how they want to, and for trying to include everyone’s priorities, rather than choosing two or three issues that could inspire a movement.

So, apparently pluralism is the culprit. As defined by the reporter, pluralism consists of “letting people say what they want, how they want to.” This inevitably leads to paralysis, making focussed choice impossible.

It is instructive to juxtapose this picture of a conference, apparently beset by the incapacitating malaise of pluralism, with the picture painted by the rabbis of a contentious rabbinic conference.

At the end of II Kings (Ch. 24:16) we are told that “And all the military men – 7000, and the ‘Harash’ and ‘Masger’ – 1000 – all heroes, makers of war, did the king of Babylon take to Babylon.” The rabbis, through their imaginative reading of the Bible – midrash – whereby they reinterpreted the Biblical description of Israel’s exile by Nebucadnezzar, wonder

– What heroism can people achieve when they are led into exile? And what war-making do people perform when they are put in shackles and placed in chains? Rather, the term “all heroes” refers to the battle of Torah and the “war-making” means that they were engaged in the combative argumentation of Torah. . . Therefore they are called ‘Harash’ [- interpreted to mean ‘keeping silent] and ‘Masger’ [- interpreted to mean ‘keeping closed’]. . . ‘Harash’ – for when one speaks all keep silent, and ‘Masger’ – for they all sit before him and learn from him. After he opens [his discourse] no one closes him down. . . (Sifre Devarim 321)

Now the “battle of Torah” clearly refers to raucous debate and impassioned, pluralistic argument. Everyone gets to say what they want and to say what they think about whatever anyone else has said. Yet, it seems to me that this midrash tells us about a key element of pluralism that was left out of the reporter’s description. This is the element of keeping silent and listening. The idea is not merely to let everybody talk when and as much as they want, about whatever they want. It demands a consciousness of the other. It means being willing to hear someone out.

But the problem is that some can be counted on to take advantage of that willingness to listen and, without some corrective policy, they will take over the conversation. While this is true in practice, in theory this should
not happen, because everyone who speaks, speaks while also listening to the other voices and perspectives. Listening includes listening, while you speak, for the reactions of your listeners. Are they responding or tuning out? Are they following your train of thought or are they thinking about
taking the next train home? A speech may be spoken by one person, but if it is really spoken while listening it will not be a monologue.

How this ideal can be put into practice requires real study, work and the implementation of conclusions. We need to create a culture – and all cultures have norms – of pluralism.

Entry – 5/11/06-13 Iyyar 5766

We live in a pluralistic world. So it’s no surprise that the Jewish world is pluralistic, too. Once you realize this you begin noticing expressions of this reality in all sorts of places. Pluralism can be expressed intentionally or inadvertantly. Pluralism is a commitment embraced by some and excoriated by others. But, accepted or rejected, it is here. Institutions and individuals may consciously engage in or eschew pluralism’s agenda, but our actions and ideas all, one way or another, are manifestations of its power. The most blatant way that pluralsim is expressed in through agencies and prgrams that proclaim their desire to engage all denominations of Judaism. Discussion of that issue will have to wait for another time.

But another manifestation of pluralism is the growing willingness of Jews to engage in eclectic choices as they define their own Jewish identities and commitments. The conviction underlying this is that coherence of meaning is built by and through the individual instead of being decreed by an already defined system or by some authority. This is one reason why many in the Orthodox community are uncomfortable with the notion of pluralism. For instance, in the March ’06 issue of Sh’ma, an issue devoted to discussing pluralism, Rabbi Meir Soloveichik writes:

What is needed, argued [Rabbi David] Hartman, is ‘an ideology of pluralism,’ the notion ‘that my faith can be nurtured without claiming exclusive truth.’ This is an approach that Orthodoxy cannot accept.

His rejection of the idea of pluralism is not simply that it may lead to anarchy and the destruction of the community, but, more fundamentally, that pluralism is antithetical to Orthodoxy, as such. Nonetheless, pluralistic thinking can be found in the Orthodox communtiy as well.
Here a fascinating statement by a person struggling with this tension. The May 4, 2006 issue of The Jerusalem Post revealed that Rabbi Haviva Ner-David was recently given recognition by her rabbinic mentor, after 12 years of study and preparation, that she is equally qualified to serve as a rabbi as any man. This is tantamount to rabbinic ordination, and Rabbi Ner-David is called up to the Torah in her Modern Orthodox community as Ha-Rav Haviva. The article quotes her as saying ‘that she would not define herself as an Orthodox rabbi.’

I feel strongly that such labels only serve to divide the Jewish people in a time when what we need is unity. Moreover, such labels tend to limit at a time when what we need is a fresh perspective and new voices, she explains. I call myself a Jewish rabbi, a rabbi of and for the Jewish People. And that is actually true for the types of people I tend to counsel and teach… [I am] part of an emerging and growing post-denominational community of serious, struggling, committed Jews who are less interested in fitting in and more interested in finding an intellectually and spiritually honest path to God by listening to the rainbow of voices that can be heard through constant interpretation and reinterpretation of our traditional texts and rituals.

Pluralism can mean the joint cooperation of denominations as they continue to maintain their differentiation, or it can the disregard of denominational definitions and affiliations for the sake of something else, something that may feel fresher, more encompassing and more honest.